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These problems can be due to the overproduction or underproduction of hormones or if the tumors grow large enough to press against areas around the pituitary gland, such as the optic nerves, which help you see.
The pituitary gland, which is about the size of a pea, is at the base of the brain. Although it is small, the gland is important and is known as the "master gland." It makes growth hormone (GH), which plays a part in growth in children and metabolism in adults, and prolactin, a hormone important for breast milk production. The pituitary gland also makes hormones that control the function of other glands, including the thyroid, adrenals and gonads (ovaries in women and testes in men).
Types of Pituitary Tumors
Pituitary tumors may occur in up to 15% to 20% of people, but tumors requiring treatment occur less frequently and often are not diagnosed.
There are two main types of pituitary tumors.
Functioning Tumors: These pituitary tumors cause the body to make too much of certain hormones. Hormones that may be overproduced by such pituitary tumors include:
Prolactin: Prolactin stimulates breast growth and milk production in women. A pituitary tumor that makes too much of this hormone is called a prolactinoma. This is the most frequent type of pituitary tumor.
Growth hormone (GH): GH plays a part in height in children and the body's metabolism. Tumors that make too much GH cause acromegaly (gradual enlargement of body parts) in adults and gigantism (abnormally large growth) in children.
Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH): This hormone tells the adrenal glands to make cortisol, which plays a role in the body's response to stress. It also helps regulate blood pressure and heart function, among other duties. Too much ACTH leads to Cushing's disease.
Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH): Pituitary tumors that make too much of this hormone cause the thyroid to release large amounts of thyroxine, causing hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid). This is the most rare type of pituitary tumor.
Non-functioning Tumors: This type of pituitary tumor does not make hormones that cause symptoms, and it is the second most frequent type of pituitary tumor. They may cause problems if they grow large and press against other areas, such as the optic nerve or other nerves. Non-functioning pituitary tumors also can interfere with the pituitary gland's normal production of hormones.
Pituitary cancer (carcinoma): In rare cases, the cells in a pituitary tumor can become cancer and metastasize (spread) to other areas of the body. In most cases, pituitary cancers make hormones, usually prolactin and ACTH.
Pituitary Tumor Risk Factors
A risk factor is anything that increases your chance of getting a disease. The only proven risk factor for pituitary tumors is inheriting a condition that makes you more likely to develop a pituitary tumor, such as Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia (MEN1) or Family Isolated Pituitary Adenoma (FIPA).
Not everyone with MEN1or FIPA gets a pituitary tumor. However, if you or someone in your family has this disorder, it’s a good idea to discuss your risk with your doctor.
Learn more about pituitary tumors:
Some cases of pituitary tumors can be passed down from one generation to the next. Genetic counseling may be right for you. Learn more about the risk to you and your family on our genetic testing page.
Why choose MD Anderson for pituitary tumor treatment?
The specialists in the Pituitary Tumor Program at MD Anderson's Endocrine Center are among the nation's most experienced and skilled experts in diagnosing and treating pituitary cancer and benign (not cancer) pituitary tumors. Your personal medical team for pituitary tumor care may include endocrinologists, neurosurgeons, neuroradiologists, pathologists, neuro-ophthalmologists and/or radiation oncologists, as well as a specially trained support staff. They communicate and collaborate closely with each other – and with you – to coordinate your treatment.
Comprehensive, Expert Care
Because the pituitary gland is delicate and can be damaged during surgery, it is vital that your surgery be done by a specialized neurosurgeon with a high degree of experience. MD Anderson's surgeons complete many pituitary tumor surgeries each year, and this increases your chance for a successful outcome.
As one of the country's foremost cancer centers, we are constantly researching new advances, and we take part in many multi-center clinical trials. This means we offer clinical trials for new treatments of pituitary tumors, which may be difficult to find elsewhere.
And, at MD Anderson you're surrounded by the strength of one of the nation's largest and most renowned comprehensive cancer centers, which has all the support and wellness services needed to treat the whole person – not just the disease.
When I went to see my gynecologist for my annual exam in November 2016, I brought up some concerning symptoms I’d noticed throughout my body. In recent months, I’d experienced joint pain in my knees, swollen feet, carpal tunnel syndrome and excessive sweating and snoring. Additionally, my hands were so swollen my rings had to be cut off, and I noticed changes in my face, like the bridge of nose getting wider.
I thought some of these symptoms were just signs of aging. Never in a thousand years would I have thought I had a pituitary tumor.
Thankfully, my doctor took my concerns seriously and ordered a blood test. Several days later, he called with the results: my growth hormone levels were nearly three times higher than the normal range. He said it was likely caused by a benign (noncancerous) tumor of the pituitary gland and referred me to a local endocrinologist.
The pituitary gland is located at the base of the brain and produces a number of important hormones that control different systems throughout the body. A brain MRI confirmed I had a pituitary tumor about the size of a large marble.
Choosing MD Anderson for my pituitary tumor care
My endocrinologist said I would need surgery to remove the pituitary tumor. He also said I would need to travel, as only a few facilities were capable of doing this type of delicate brain surgery.
MD Anderson was hands-down my first choice because it’s the best of the best! My husband and I drove 300 miles from New Boston, Texas, to Houston to meet with endocrinologist Jeena Varghese, M.D., and neurosurgeon Ian McCutcheon, M.D. Dr. McCutcheon said I’d probably had the tumor for years before I started experiencing symptoms.
My pituitary tumor surgery
On Feb. 1, 2017, I had endonasal transsphenoidal removal of my pituitary tumor. The endonasal transsphenoidal approach is a minimally invasive pituitary surgery that uses the nasal passages to access the tumor.
I tolerated the procedure well, even with a cerebrospinal fluid leak. I experienced wonderful care from the doctors and nurses at MD Anderson. I also had a great support system with my husband, three daughters, family and friends. As I prepared for and recovered from surgery, I found comfort in the “Clinging Cross” my daughter gave me as a reminder of God’s constant presence.
Symptoms improve after pituitary tumor surgery
Just four days after my surgery, I was discharged from the hospital and headed home. My symptoms have improved tremendously. My hands and feet have downsized, and my face has slimmed considerably. My joint pain is so much better. The snoring is also gone, and I just feel so much better overall.
Less than two months after surgery, my growth hormone levels returned back to normal, and Dr. Varghese says I don’t need any further treatment at this time. I feel very fortunate and blessed.
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